"There is difference and there is power. And who holds the power decides the meaning of the difference." --June Jordan

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Age and Fertility: A Slippery Slope


It's been in the news that the "world's oldest new mom" has just passed away.
MADRID - She devoted years to caring for her mother, who died at age 101. Then Maria del Carmen Bousada embarked on a quest to become a mom herself. She lied to a California fertility clinic to skirt its age limit, and later pointed to her mother’s longevity as a reason to expect she’d be around to care for her kids.

At age 66 she had twins, becoming the world’s oldest new mom — and raising questions about maternity so late in life. Now she is dead at age 69, leaving behind boys not yet 3.
Although I'm not surprised that stories like this "raise questions" about appropriate motherhood in our broader culture, it always catches me a bit off guard to hear vehement judgment passed on women for their choices. (If you read any of the comments on the story, or if you happened to catch The View yesterday morning, you know what I'm talking about.) There seems to be the general feeling that it's selfish or irresponsible for a woman to have children when there is a possibility that she will not live long enough to completely raise them. But there are a number of problems with using this rationale to support laws and policies that prohibit older women from seeking fertility treatment or becoming pregnant.

1. There's a double standard at work, here. When men die and leave behind small children, we generally don't blame them for fathering children at older ages, nor do we call them irresponsible for engaging in risky activities that may endanger their lives and cut short their time on earth with their offspring. (Instead, we usually just congratulate them on their virility.) The reason? As a society, we just don't hold men responsible for the physical or emotional work of childcare in the way we do women.

2. No matter how you look at it, prohibiting women of a certain age from pursuing their own reproductive decisions is inevitably political And I hate to use the fraught words "slippery slope", here, but passing judgment on some women really does open the door for all sorts of other restrictions on women's freedom. If there is to be a cut-off age for older women to be able to choose to have children, when should it be? Should it be based on average life expectancy for all women? Should race, region, or socioeconomic status be taken into account, even though these factors have been shown to have significant effects on life expectancy? Would having different standards for different women smack of uncomfortable -isms we would rather avoid, while not doing so would perhaps disadvantage women who are arguably better equipped live longer and raise their children? Why is age and not overall health the determining factor? Shouldn't women be given health screenings before they receive fertility treatment to make sure they're in tip top health (whatever that means) before they can proceed? And why stop at fertility treatments and in vitro fertilization? If it is so incredibly tragic and detrimental for young children to lose their mothers, why not prohibit older women from becoming pregnant on their own, as well? Why not enforce contraception for all female cancer patients? How about (re)enacting protectionist laws that keep women out of all sorts of dangerous situations that men are free to enter, just so that we can guarantee all children that their mothers will be kept safe from harm?

3. Life is unpredictable. Young mothers die, too. Bousada very well could have lived to be 101 years old, like her mother before her. The fact that she ended up passing away at the still rather early age of 66 does not prove anything.

4. Finally, and I hope I don't catch too much heat for this one, but since when is deciding to have children (at any age) not a selfish act? Generally, people become parents for totally self-interested reasons, but this selfishness only gets called out when people feel they have a reason to mount their high horses and act as if their parenting is pure and selfless because they did it right (in which "right" means "according to societal norms").

We need to trust women to make choices about their bodies and their lives. If IVF is going to be available to anyone, it should be available to everyone. When we blame and punish doctors for women's decisions, it infantilizes women by sending the message that they are unable to make intimate decisions for themselves and their families.


Anonymous said...

One of the things that caught my eye about this was the thought of:

"laws that keep women out of all sorts of dangerous situations that men are free to enter"

Because my husband and I are not planning to have children, I have a different perspective on this. Would *I* be prohibited from participating in dangerous activities just because I'm a woman? Or do you have to take some sort of "intention" test to find out if you are or are thinking of becoming a mother?

Also, is it possible that keeping up with the children actually shortened her life? How do you work with that paradox (if it is one)?

Interesting points.

Anonymous said...

I had not heard this story, so thanks for the post - it kind of fired me up! I agree with you 100% on several points. First, any criticism of her is completely illogical, in my opinion, because as you have stated, any parent could be killed in a car crash tomorrow. You would never tell a perfectly healthy 24 year-old to not have children on the off-chance that she developed a terminal illness at a young age, etc., so why apply that logic to this woman?

Secondly, I hope you don't get much heat for saying that having children is a selfish act, because you are correct. Anyone who is honest with themselves has to admit that we bring children into the world to satisfy our need to be parents, continue our bloodline, and a number of other reasons, all of which can be viewed as selfish.

Tracey said...

tomncristy - Exactly and excellent point, and one of the rationales for the Pregnancy Discrimination Act passing decades after the Civil Rights Act of 1967. Discrimination against pregnant women translates into discrimination against fertile women translates into discrimination to again possibly-fertile women. Which ends up being discrimination against ALL women.

noel - I'm glad you got what I was saying about the selfishness of parenting. It's not that I think it's necessarily a bad thing -- otherwise none of us would be here! But it breaks my heart to hear this accusation leveled viciously at this woman and many other women who choose to have children when their circumstances aren't "ideal". Throughout history, we have seen some really tragic consequences of letting those in power control women's fertility, and feminists have learned that, if this power resides with others, nearly any woman's circumstances could deemed inappropriate for motherhood.

Seriously, reading the comments on this news story around the web makes you just want to weep for this woman. Calls for sterilization and for the doctor to be locked up for life are among the most popular suggestions.

Anonymous said...

As women in a patiarchal-political society it is often our demise and misfortune that we find ourselves in protest to claim the rights to our own bodies.
At the same time because of human-nature's flawed ability the moral compass has to be implemented.
With that said certain laws need to be issued in regard to IVF, to ensure that ethical and moral codes are maintained. To ensure that Octo-Mom syndrome does not become a recurring dilemma. It's simply outrageous that people are able to give birth simply because they have the financial means and motive.
The monetary function is personally the singular reason why i find the manufacturing of children borderline inhumane...IVF companies are allowing money to overshadow staunch critical criteria that should be essential in procreation, as in the psychological and physical health of any potential client.
I whole heartily agree that having children in many ways goes along the lines of selfish interest. But perhaps in general as a potential parent we all should consider how that selfish gain outweighs the commitment and sacrifice that should be given to our offspring. Perhaps stronger questions should be central focus instead of "oo i wanna little girl with pretty brown hair just like mine" or "a son to carry on my legacy".
What are the risk and how greatly will a child benefit from having you as a parent?
Maybe childbearing/procreation should not be a lighthearted hallmark moment.
We need to be aware of how technology and money is shifting the laws of nature to what extent are we willing to go. Is there a limi..shouldn't there be a limit?!

Tracey said...

It's simply outrageous that people are able to give birth simply because they have the financial means and motive.

Um, isn't that how most people have children, whether it's on their own or with medical assistance?

I agree that money is a huge issue when it comes to IVF, but to me, the problem seems to stem from the huge financial barriers for access to it.

Parents should absolutely be considering their children's futures in their reproductive decisions, but there is no objective definition for what that kind of future looks like, and the idea of someone else getting to decide that for women is politically unnerving.

Bachelor Girl said...

Great post, Tracy. It sometimes surprises people when I tell them this, but Christian though I am, I wholeheartedly believe in complete reproductive freedom for everyone, and that freedom goes both ways - women should be free to have as few or as many children as they desire at any age. Number one, I think your "slippery slope" point is totally valid, and just because I (or anyone else) thinks someone else's decision is or is not moral does not make it so. Perhaps most importantly, it's not up to anyone to legislate morality in the first place.

Candace Austin said...

In some cases it's the lack there of (money) that individuals end up with children they cannot provide or care for.
However, IVF is a stand in for nature and it's attempt to manipulate and mimic it should be restrained.
Perhaps it's my background or socialization. My mom finished her childbearing yrs at 28( her oldest was already 13).But I'm twenty five and still don't see the possibility of me having kids within the next 3-5 yrs, perhaps, things would of been different if i was in Guyana. In my country friends my age are working on their 2nd or 3rd child.
It's different here where women are starting motherhood at later ages and I'm not quite sure if i agree with the aspect of career driven being the central issue.
Because the majority if not all of the women I'm aware of within my age group and typically for Guyanese women have their families and progressive careers.
Yes i'm aware of the thin line between morality and immorality: more so, the 'slippery slope' of enforcing such codes. But we live in a society that is so far from being a Utopia that does not contain psychologically crippling individuals. Seriously not because we all can procreate means that everyone should have the go ahead. In the case of Bousada the aspect of her age was not a strong enough argument to prevent her or anyone else from being able to proceed with the IVF. But i still insist that measures need to be implemented to govern IVF applicants... i just see that this procedure could potentially get way out of hand...and in more ways than one will mimic the way society has abused the natural order of procreation. There are too many unparented children.

Tracey said...

I'm still really, really troubled by the argument that "not because we all can procreate means that everyone should have the go ahead." What's absent from this argument is who gets to say who has the "go ahead" to procreate and how this is decided upon. Even though lots of people seem to think that women shouldn't have kids if they are too old or too poor, setting an age limit or a minimum income would be highly unjust.

Unapologetically Mundane said...

#4 makes me want to marry you right now.

I can't think of ANY age where it's really appropriate to have kids. I actually have a blog post saved in draft form about how I don't really know anyone whose offspring is necessary except maybe mine and Kamran's. And fine–yours and Dan's.

Anonymous said...

I wanted to add something to your #1 When fathers pass away when their kids are still young, I have heard it blamed on the women "who should have chosen younger partners" or "she should have agreed to have children earlier so he wasn't so old when they got them." It's disgusting. As if it's solely the woman's decision when to have children - no one considers that the man himself might have delayed procreation because of him not feeling ready. Nope, must be the woman who was being difficult >.<

Tracey said...

Oh, this is to true. And even if it is acknowledged that the man wasn't ready for children until a much older age, this is considered understandable, whereas for women, a similar decision is judged harshly. So many double standards at work.